A Modernist Gas Station With a New Purpose

Most gas stations are architecturally forgettable, but not this one.

A squat, unusually minimalist service station on Nuns’ Island—a sector of Montreal that was exclusively inhabited and farmed by a religious order for nearly 170 years until its sale in 1956—holds the distinction of being the only gas station Ludwig Mies van der Rohe ever built.

The building known simply as “the Nuns’ Island gas station” opened in 1969, the same year its architect, the former Bauhaus instructor famous for his “less is more” mantra, died. The building is composed of four main elements: Two rectangular buildings on either end, one made entirely of glass curtain walls and the other made of brick and glass, with gas pumps and an attendant booth on a middle island. The final element is distinctly Miesian: A large flat roof draped over the entire construction.

“It’s quite exceptional to have the gas station in the middle and the two buildings to the sides. Usually it’s in the inverse: The building in the middle and the pumps around it. In the end, it looks more like a Mies building than a standard gas station,” says —were selected to ease the gas station into its new life as , an iconic architect from Montreal and one of the world’s foremost Mies experts, on a private tour. He says everybody knows that her work on preserving Montreal heritage buildings was probably the reason the station was still standing. “She was very happy about the result,” he says.

Inside the repurposed gas station, a “White Room” serves as an activity center where people aged 50-plus take Spanish lessons, as well as dance and drawing classes. (Steve Montpetit/Les Architectes FABG)

That was a relief to Gauthier. He’d taken great care to maintain as much of the original construction as possible; for instance, damaged and corroded metallic elements were repaired instead of replaced, though it would have been cheaper to upgrade them. He kept the non-functional garage doors and found the original shade of black paint, too.

La Station has been an intergenerational community center since 2012. It’s almost a perfectly Miesian second act for something built for utility. The center’s director, Kunthy Chhim, says teens occupy the Black Room, which houses ping-pong and pool tables, couches, computers, and video-game consoles. The Black Room is the one entirely encased in glass and is named for its floor color. The White Room, meanwhile, serves as an activity center where people aged 50-plus take Spanish lessons, as well as dance and drawing classes. “I have funny pictures of older people doing tai-chi in the gas station,” says Gauthier.

Chhim says residents quickly took to the building’s unusual organization. “Members really appreciate the building’s architecture. The black poles and glass walls give us an almost surrealist impression of being inside and outside at the same time,” he says. “Doing yoga or a relaxation exercise while a snowstorm is happening outside is an incredible experience.”

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